The Top 16: Hard to separate the favorites, probables and outsiders
The only European player ever to win both the Euroleague and NCAA titles, Jiri "George" Zidek has been a collaborator with Euroleague.net and Euroleague.TV since the 2006 Final Four was held in his native Czech Republic. Big George, who won the Euroleague with Zalgiris Kaunas in 1999, continues as a color analyst of Euroleague games for Czech TV, not to mention for Euroleague.TV, where he has worked the last three Final Fours. As George returns for the 2011-12 Turkish Airlines Euroleague season, expect more great insights from an ex-champ's point of view!
The holiday period is nearing its end and with that the beginning of the Top 16 is knocking on the door. While many of us slowed down some to enjoy the holiday spirit, some teams – depending on their schedules – plowed ahead. In the meantime, the 16 surviving Turkish Airlines Euroleague teams received a vital piece of information that lets them know what their next phase matchups look like. Sixteen teams from seven different countries entered the draw and therefore we have a couple of groups with teams from the same countries. More detailed scouting and knowledge of each other from domestic championships will likely play some role and are surely to give extra punch to these matchups. If you considered the regular season a cut throat competition in which every game or even points difference matters, just wait for the suspense ahead of us in a format in which two teams advance after six games! The universal recipe for success says that winning at home is essential. Of course, all teams are also aware that one road win often translates into a ticket to playoffs. Keeping the game as close as possible till the last quarter will be the visiting teams’ mantra in an effort to steal a priceless road victory. Looking at the Top 16 participants, you could be maneuvered into picking the favorites, probables and outsiders. But don’t be so sure this season which team is which. We have seen Euroleague rookie teams standing up rather firmly to the established grey wolfs of the competition and making more than a good name for themselves. The Top 16 might be a bonus for some teams and a learning process for others, but once the players take the floor and the fans light up the arenas, all will start from 0-0 with 40 minutes to show that they belong among the elite….. Let the games begin!
Its unblemished record likely puts a favorite label on the backs of the CSKA players. I agree! But it also makes them a big target that will bring out the most in all their opponents. It will be good to see Andrei Kirilenko back in action after his injury. His talent, versatility and unselfish play are always fun to watch and give CSKA a champion’s edge. With Olympiacos, you can expect hard-nosed defense and an organized game plan with Vassilis Spanoulis at the helm. I expect continuous improvement from the newly assembled Olympiacos squad as it found itself in a difficult position in the regular season, but managed to stay strong and didn’t panic. Anadolu Efes has a lot of talent and a great motivation in having the Final Four at home. The Dusko Savanovic vs. Andrei Kirilenko matchup should be a feast to watch! When you think of Galatasaray Medical Park, you must mention the great fan support this team got during the regular season. Galatasaray has a lot of experience and even though it is not a favorite to advance from this group, it could easily play the role of party spoilers.
If these teams asked to be saved the burden of travel before the draw, they got their wish granted. Three Spanish clubs and an Italian powerhouse are together. Coach Pablo Laso has had profound influence on the way Madrid plays by defining a clear role for each player on the team. We have grown accustomed to talented players being part of Madrid’s rosters in the past, but this season the missing chemistry and togetherness seem to have arrived. Siena won a lot respect by downing Barcelona at home “one legged.” Lets see if and how the team has adopted to the long-term absences of Kaukenas and Lavrinovic. Unicaja and Gescrap Bilbao are young and interesting teams to watch that should feel no pressure entering the Top 16, while at the same time feeling hopeful about advancing further in the competition. Both have great home crowds and are capable of putting on a show. Unicaja will look for a better luck in regard to injuries, while Bilbao should benefit from having 10 Euroleague games under its belt.
The highest ranked of the three Turkish representatives after the regular season, Fenerbahce Ulker will look to keep its position in perhaps the most even group in the Top 16. All the teams in Group G are strong home teams and I expect it to be a very difficult task to win on the road. Fenerbahce is athletic, full of talent and capable of putting on a good offensive show. Quality and unselfish guard play sets the tone for the team and enables players like Gist and Bogdanovic to show their potential. Panathinaikos is defending the title and while it is always harder to repeat, the team traditionally has loads of potential and leadership in Dimitris Diamantidis. Winning has become a tradition and obligation in Athens, so watch out as Panathinaikos matures and comes closer together with each round. Banking on potential and experience at the guard position has paid off for Kazan. Both Domercant and Greer make good things happen and have been greatly helped by the athletic Veremeenko under the basket in a so far very good season for the newcomer from Russia. EA7 Emporio Armani Milan showed a lot of character and poise by winning the decisive game of the regular season at Pionir Arena in Belgrade. With the pressure off their backs that came with the high expectations of a new era in club history, things should get easier for the Italians. Look at the benches in this group – Spahija, Obradovic, Pashutin and Scariolo – all of these coaches are strong leaders of their respective teams.
Athletic, uptempo and fast paced offense describe FC Barcelona Regal’s style of play. Barcelona is well balanced and deep at each position and has many ways that it can hurt teams defensively. The unexpected stumble against Siena, in my opinion, taught them a valuable lesson and could prove actually useful in the future. Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv has made so far the biggest transfer before the start of the Top 16 by bringing in Demond Mallet from Spirou Charleroi. Mallet has been superb for the Belgians, but his role will be very much different in Israel just as much as it will be crucial for the team’s success. If he fits well, Maccabi will benefit immensely. Even though Bennet Cantu’s players never fail to mention that they are living a Euroleague dream, don’t be fooled because they are a group of hungry, rightly mixed experienced and young players. Playing with a lot of enthusiasm and discipline, especially at home, Cantu is a tough place to play. A full and new arena in a basketball-crazy country for each home game almost obliges Zalgiris to step up its game in this phase of the competition. A couple of roster moves and an additional month to practice under coach Trifunovic should benefit the team that is a small step away from being very competitive.
With still more than two weeks left before the Top 16 begins I would not be surprised to see teams stepping into the market in efforts to bolster their chances. Groups of four are dynamic and no team is without a chance…..
Monday, January 02, 2012